October 22, 2021

Cecil the Lion and the Cultural Perils of Internet Outrage

Unknown-1Walter Palmer, it turns out, is far from the only American who enjoys bloodsport. That irony is, of course, lost on the hordes to whom it applies — the thousands of Twitter users and Yelp posters and (non-digital) protesters who have shut down Palmer’s Minneapolis dental practice and forced him into hiding, all because he shot a prized Zimbabwean lion earlier this month.

The circumstances of Cecil the lion’s death are unclear. The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force says that Palmer and his guides lured Cecil out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, that the company attempted to destroy the GPS collar Cecil wore as part of an Oxford University study, and that after being initially shot with a crossbow, Cecil limped along for some 40 hours before the group was able to track him down and kill him. Zimbabwean police arrested, and released on bail, Palmer’s two guides, but in a statement earlier this week, Palmer denied the accusations. Rest assured: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opened an official investigation.

Poaching is heinous, and most people are, rightly, disinclined to slaughter a creature of beauty and might, even when it’s legal. But the response to Palmer’s safari has gone beyond mere disapproval into abject rage. On Yelp he is a “gun-toting redneck murderer,” a “f***ing waste of sperm,” and “a true example of everything that is wrong in this world.” Twitter users have fantasized about shooting him with his crossbow and murdering him with his dental implements. Actress Debra Messing called for his citizenship to be revoked, and Sharon Osbourne summed up the general mood with her usual modesty: “Walter Palmer is Satan.”

Interestingly, there has been outrage over the outrage. Conservatives complained that Cecil’s death received far more media attention than videos of Planned Parenthood’s gruesome abortion procedures and fetal organ-trafficking, while left-wing race activists complained that Cecil’s death had been more lamented than Sandra Bland’s.

Everyone, it seems, has a reason to be angry of late. It’s entirely possible to be upset about a dead lion and dead babies, or a dead lion and a dead woman in a Texas jail, or about all three. But surely their intuition is right. It certainly has precedent. Note a story related by the Greek historian Plutarch in his Pericles:

Caesar [Augustus] once, seeing some wealthy strangers at Rome, carrying up and down with them in their arms and bosoms young puppy-dogs and monkeys, embracing and making much of them, took occasion not unnaturally to ask whether the women in their country were not used to bear children; by that prince-like reprimand gravely reflecting upon persons who spend and lavish upon brute beasts that affection and kindness which nature has implanted in us to be bestowed on those of our own kind.

The last few days undoubtedly have shown that the moral priorities of a great many Americans are woefully inverted.

It cannot go unremarked, though, that this latest episode follows April’s cyber-siege of the O’Connors of Walkerton, Ind., targeted for (hypothetically) objecting to catering a same-sex wedding out of their pizza shop, and June’s hysteria over Confederate symbols. What can account for the spitting rage of, say, Yelp “reviewer” Bob H. of Beaverton, Ore., who warned Palmer today, “Keep your eyes open—someone is going to beat the living s**t out of you. I am just jealous it will not be myself!”?

In his famous book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes of the pernicious effect of mass media:

The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist — could not exist — in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.

Now they can. Postman was referring to the cultural sea-change represented by television. The same effect is compounded beyond measure by the Internet, which has, in essence, made everything “news.” It’s no longer enough to care just about what we read in our local newspaper — about the daily business of our own locality. We’re now called upon to care about Christians in Iraq and political prisoners in Iran and starvation in North Korea. Did you know that Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president of Zimbabwe, celebrated his 91st birthday in February by dining on baby elephant? Shouldn’t we all be outraged by that, too?

A psychic siege is taking place.

It’s not difficult to see that our inclination to mobbishness is, at least in part, a reaction to being psychically overwhelmed by issues that are too complex, and too many, to sort through. Instead, we retreat, aiming to seize upon occasions for easy moral outrage. In the midst of so many troubles about which Sharon Osbourne, let alone the average Yelp reviewer, can do so little, social media is the perfect medium for theatrical, self-affirming expressions of moral superiority. The shrinking of the world has, in fact, shown us just how big it is. What can you do? Well, you can get mad.

There are no solutions to this problem, but it might be mitigated. In an earlier time, the excesses of a Walter Palmer would have been the interest of Zimbabwean authorities, perhaps a few American policemen, and whatever private sporting organizations he belonged to. The “daily business” of London lawyers, Dutch cat owners, and electronica producers in Dubai — all of whom have demanded that Palmer himself be hunted down — would have been considerably more provincial. Without neglecting crucial matters of national or international concern, an effort to refocus on the provincial could do much good. What does it matter to a citizen of Buffalo, N.Y., or Plainview, Tex., that a Minnesota man killed a lion halfway around the world? Nothing. But it matters a great deal if your Buffalo neighborhood is succumbing to blight, or if your child’s Plainview public school is lousy. And, of course, about those problems a person can do something. This is “daily business” to which one can actually attend.

The problem, of course, is that you cannot credibly posture on Twitter about a dangerous intersection nearby. Rage is easy; responsibility isn’t. Most people would rather roar about lions.